Senate passes bill to designate three-digit number for national suicide hotline

The Senate passed a bipartisan bill that seeks to make the national suicide prevention hotline a three-digit number. By Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN

(CNN) -- The Senate on Wednesday passed a bipartisan bill that seeks to make the national suicide prevention hotline a three-digit number.

The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act was unanimously passed by a voice vote in the Senate and now heads to the House.

Currently, the hotline is accessible by the 10-digit number, 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

If passed and signed by President Donald Trump, the legislation would allow an individual seeking help to dial 9-8-8 and be directed to the hotline. The old number will still work.

The bill would authorize states to collect fees aimed at ensuring local crisis centers will be able to support increased volume, and it also would direct government health agencies to submit a report to Congress detailing strategies to improve support services for LGBTQ youth, minorities and individuals in rural counties, who are at higher risk for suicide.

A companion bill was introduced in the House by GOP Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah and is currently in committee. It's currently included in the latest coronavirus relief bill, the HEROES Act, which is up for a vote on Friday. That bill, however, has been declared dead on arrival in the Republican-led Senate. Tim Biba, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a co-sponsor of the bill, cited the mental health fallout of the coronavirus pandemic when he said, "We will pursue all options" in making sure the hotline legislation is enacted as quickly as possible.

The Senate legislation doesn't say how much the change will cost. In a report to Congress last year, the Federal Communications Commission estimated that the total costs of implementing a three-digit dial code for the first year would be approximately $570 million and $175 million in the second year, including costs for increased call-center capacity and a public awareness campaign. But it stressed that the "benefits of this action are quite likely to outweigh the costs."

Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, said that the coronavirus pandemic has "only underscored just how time sensitive" improving mental health support is.

"Access to mental health care is especially important during this trying time filled with grief and uncertainty for so many people," Gardner said on the Senate floor last week, adding that in a mental health emergency, "it's almost impossible to remember the current 10-digit hotline."

The national public health group Well Being Trust recently warned that as many as 75,000 Americans could die because of drug or alcohol misuse and suicide as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Kimberly Williams, the president and CEO of Vibrant, which helps operate the hotline, told CNN that the "hotline has not experienced significant changes in call volume at this time," but she added, "this may shift as we move through the stages of disaster."

In its analysis, the group said that the growing unemployment rate, economic downturns, stress caused by isolation and lack of a definitive end date for the pandemic could significantly increase so-called "deaths of despair" unless local, state and federal authorities take action.

In 2018, Congress passed and Trump signed into law the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, which directed the FCC to study the use of a three-digit dialing code for the hotline.

Last year, the FCC recommended to Congress the number 9-8-8, over other three-digit options, finding that a shorter and easier to remember number "would likely make it easier for Americans in crisis to access potentially life-saving resources."

In December, the FCC unanimously approved the three-digit number for the hotline and began the rulemaking process.

To get help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.

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